16 points to ponder as 16 drivers set to race for Cup crown

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The quest to be NASCAR’s best begins for 16 drivers, as they embark on 10-track, nine-state, three time-zone quest that will take them from Las Vegas to Dover to Phoenix and Miami (and points in between).

With Jimmie Johnson failing to qualify, there is no playoff driver with more than one Cup title. Ten playoff drivers, including Denny Hamlin, seek their first Cup championship. One, William Byron, is making his first playoff appearance.

TV: NASCAR America presents coverage of Playoff Media Day at 6 p.m. ET Thursday

TV: NASCAR America Burnout Boulevard Driven by Goodyear airs at 7 p.m. ET Thursday

The next two months are likely to feature frayed nerves, epic celebrations and tight racing. Who will have the honor of being called NASCAR champion in Miami?

We’re about to find out. The journey begins Sunday (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Until then, here are 16 things to ponder about this playoff field:

Crew chief Chad Knaus and William Byron. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

1. Still Perfect: While Jimmie Johnson will miss the playoffs for the first time in his career, crew chief Chad Knaus will continue his streak of taking part in every playoff season.

This will be Knaus’ 16th consecutive year in the playoffs. The first 15 were with Johnson. This year, Knaus is with William Byron, who is making his first playoff appearance.

Only one other crew chief has been in more than 10 consecutive playoffs. Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott, will be making his 12th consecutive appearance in the playoffs.

2. Streaking: While Johnson’s streak is over, Kyle Busch has an impressive streak going. He has made it to the championship race in Miami each of the past four years. Busch won the title in 2015, finished third in 2016, placed second in 2017 and was fourth last year.

3. Most to prove in the playoffs: Chevrolet. The manufacturer has not had a car make it to the championship race since 2016 when Jimmie Johnson won the last of his seven championships. Chevrolet has five cars in the playoffs this year (Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch) and failing to make the championship race a third year in a row would only add to Chevy’s embarrassment.

4. Members only: Six of the 16 drivers in the playoffs have won a Cup title: Kurt Busch (2004), Brad Keselowski (2012), Kevin Harvick (2014), Kyle Busch (2015), Martin Truex Jr. (2017), Joey Logano (2018).

5. So long ago: Kurt Busch is seeking to set a record for the longest gap between championships. He won his lone Cup crown in 2004. The record is 12 years between titles. Terry Labonte won his first crown in 1984 and his second title in 1996.

Kyle Busch (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

6. Most pit road speeding penalties in regular season: No, it’s not Denny Hamlin. It’s his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, who has five.

Hamlin, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. are next with three pit road speeding penalties each.

Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano each had no pit road speeding penalties in the first 26 races of the season.

7. Most playoff wins (by current title contender): 13 by Kevin Harvick (Jimmie Johnson has 29 wins in the playoffs is not in the playoffs this year).

8. Most consecutive playoff appearances — Kevin Harvick is making his 10th consecutive playoff appearance, the longest active streak.

Kyle Larson  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

9. Familiar refrain: Kyle Larson enters the playoffs winless in his last 72 points races (he did win the non-points All-Star Race in May). During that winless streak, Larson has finished second nine times (12.5% of the time). Since his last win at Richmond in September 2017, here are the races Larson has finished second and who he finished behind:

Sept 24, 2017 — New Hampshire (Kyle Busch won)

March 18, 2018 — Auto Club (Martin Truex Jr. won)

April 15, 2018 — Bristol (Kyle Busch won)

June 3, 2018 — Pocono (Martin Truex Jr. won)

July 1, 2018 — Chicago (Kyle Busch won)

Aug. 18, 2018 — Bristol (Kurt Busch won)

Sept. 16, 2018 — Las Vegas (Brad Keselowski)

June 30, 2019 — Chicago (Alex Bowman won)

10. Bet on 1 at Las Vegas: Vegas native Kurt Busch has the best average finish among the playoff drivers at 1.5-mile tracks this season. Busch, who won at Kentucky in July, has an average finish of 9.29 at 1.5-mile tracks.

Joey Logano, who won at Las Vegas in March, is next with an average finish of 9.71 at 1.5-mile tracks this year. Ryan Blaney has the worst average finish among playoff drivers at 1.5-mile tracks this year at 20.71.

11. Then again, maybe you should play the 2 and 22 at Vegas: Brad Keselowski, who won last year’s playoff opener at Las Vegas, has eight consecutive top-10 finishes there. Team Penske teammate Joey Logano has seven consecutive top 10s there.

Chase Elliott (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

12. Most Popular Champion: Reigning most popular driver Chase Elliott might be overlooked by some but consider this: On the eight playoff tracks that have hosted a Cup race this season, Elliott scored the most points (324) among the playoff drivers.

Joey Logano is next at 301 points and then comes Kevin Harvick at 292 points. Ryan Newman ranks last with 184 points.

13. No pay, no play(offs): Only one of the last 31 playoff races has been won by a non-playoff driver.

14. Miles to be run in the 10 playoff races: 3,726.1

15. Miles if one were to drive from track to track for each of the 10 playoff races: 10,362. For perspective, Beijing is 7,126 miles from Charlotte, North Carolina, the sport’s hub … Auckland, New Zealand is 8,324 miles from Charlotte … Tokyo, site of the 2020 Olympics, is 6,879 miles from Charlotte.

16. Left out: Kyle Busch is on a 12-race winless streak, his longest drought since 2017-18. All three of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have won since Busch’s last victory: Martin Truex Jr. (Sonoma), Denny Hamlin (Pocono, Bristol) and Erik Jones (Darlington).

Playoff schedule

Sept. 15 – Las Vegas (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Sept. 21 – Richmond (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Sept. 29 – Charlotte Roval (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC)

Oct. 6 – Dover (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Oct. 13 – Talladega (2 p.m. ET, NBC)

Oct. 20 – Kansas (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC)

Oct. 27 – Martinsville (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Nov. 3 – Texas (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Nov. 10 – Phoenix (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC)

Nov. 17 – Miami (3 p.m. ET, NBC)

Driver points standings entering the playoffs

2045 – Kyle Busch

2030 – Denny Hamlin

2029 – Martin Truex Jr.

2028 – Kevin Harvick

2028 – Joey Logano

2024 – Brad Keselowski

2018 – Chase Elliott

2011 – Kurt Busch

2005 – Alex Bowman

2005 – Erik Jones

2005 – Kyle Larson

2004 – Ryan Blaney

2001 – William Byron

2001 – Aric Almirola

2000 – Clint Bowyer

2000 – Ryan Newman

 

Jagger Jones earns K&N West Rookie of the Year honors

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Like grandfather, like father and now like son. Racing success is definitely a tradition in the Jones family.

Jagger Jones has followed in the shoes of his legendary grandfather Parnelli and father P.J., capturing the 2019 Sunoco K&N Pro Series West Rookie of the Year honors in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, it was announced Wednesday.

“(Winning Rookie of the Year) and to win races, those were our two main goals,” the youngest Jones, of Scottsdale, Arizona, said in a statement. “I think the whole season we’ve led the Rookie of the Year standings, which is pretty cool, and separated ourselves from the other rookies and got it done.”

Driving for Sunrise Ford and team owner Bob Bruncati, the 17-year-old Jones earned one win, eight top fives and 11 top 10s in the 14-race season. He also earned one pole, led 248 laps and had an average finish of 5.4. He finished second in the overall standings behind champion Derek Krause and three points ahead of third-ranked Hailie Deegan.

MORE: Parnelli Jones’ grandson Jagger set to make own racing mark in K&N debut

Brittney Zamora, driving for Bill McAnally Racing, finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting.

“McAnally versus Sunrise was definitely the race in the West competition wise,” Jones said. “To get that and finish second in the points in my rookie season, I was pretty pleased with that.”

Jones becomes the sixth Sunrise Ford Racing driver in the last 13 years to win the top rookie honors, joining Jason Bowles (2007), Luis Martinez Jr. (2010), Austin Dyne (2012), Dylan Lupton (2013) and James Bickford (2014). Bill McAnally Racing won the top rookie award in each of the last three seasons: Todd Gilliland (2016), Derek Kraus (2017) and Hailie Deegan (2018).

Sam Mayer previously won the K&N Pro Series East Sunoco Rookie of the Year award for 2019.

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Daniel Hemric, Jeb Burton to drive JR Motorsports’ No. 8 car in 2020

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JR Motorsports’ revealed Wednesday that Jeb Burton and Daniel Hemric will drive its No. 8 Chevrolet for the majority of the 2020 Xfinity Series season, in addition to one race with Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind the wheel.

Hemric, who drove Richard Childress Racing’s No. 8 car in the Cup Series this season, is scheduled for 21 races.

RCR is replacing Hemric with Tyler Reddick in 2020.

Hemric returns to the Xfinity Series, where he competed for RCR from 2017-18. He made the Championship 4 in both seasons.

“I want to thank Dale, Kelley and everyone at JR Motorsports for believing in me,” Hemric said in a press release. “For a Kannapolis (N.C.) boy like me, driving for the Earnhardt family is pretty awesome.

“My goal here is simple — to go win races for JR Motorsports and to help their program any way that I can. I’ve raced against their cars before and I know how they’re capable of running. My focus is on finishing the Cup season out strong, but once the checkered flag flies at Homestead, we’ll set our sights on getting the No. 8 car to Victory Lane early and often next season.”

Said Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “Daniel is a solid competitor with a great personality. He’ll be a quality addition to our lineup in 2020. We’re lucky to have him. I feel like he has grown as a driver from his time in the Cup Series. That will be valuable to him with this new opportunity to compete in the Xfinity series. He’s a local Kannapolis native with a lot of determination to succeed, and I’m excited to work with him.”

Burton, who has driven in six races for JRM this season, is set for 11 next year.

Other drivers who have piloted the No. 8 for JRM this season included Zane Smith (10 starts), Ryan Truex (six starts), Ryan Preece (four starts), Regan Smith (two starts), Brett Moffitt (one start), Chase Elliott (one start), Sheldon Creed (one start) and Earnhardt (one start).

 

NASCAR America presents MotorMouths airs at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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Today’s edition of NASCAR America presents MotorMouths airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

On the show will be Rutledge Wood, Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Nate Ryan.

Obviously, the main topic of discussion will be this weekend’s championship races, particularly the Cup battle between Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

You can join the conversation by calling 1-844-NASCARNBC or reach out on Twitter via #LetMeSayThis.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Viewers guide to 2019 Miami Championship Weekend

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Sunday’s Cup Series championship race will be a significant moment in the career of one driver.

Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick will each battle for the Cup title at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC and NASCAR Hot Pass on NBCSN).

For Truex, Busch and Harvick, they have a chance to join Jimmie Johnson as the only active drivers with multiple titles. One of them would become the 16th Cup driver to win multiple championships.

For Hamlin, he could finally lose his title of the winningest active driver without a championship on his record.

This will be the last scheduled championship weekend in Miami after it has hosted the event since 2002. Next year it will move to ISM Raceway near Phoenix.

Here’s a guide to the final weekend of the NASCAR season:

FUN WITH NUMBERS

The Championship 4 is three against one on multiple levels.

As mentioned, it will feature three past champions going against Hamlin, who will try to win his first title in his 14th year of full-time Cup competition. In his only other Championship 4 appearance in 2014, Hamlin finished third.

Three Toyotas from Joe Gibbs Racing will be pitted against one Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 4 driven by Harvick.

“(We need to) beat three Gibbs cars.  Go faster than them,” Harvick said. “We’re going to do everything just like we’ve done all year.”

Three drivers in their 30s – Busch (34 years old), Truex (39) and Hamlin (38) – are going against Harvick, whose 43.

CHAMPIONSHIP BIRTHDAY?

Speaking of ages….

Like everyone else, Hamlin’s birthday falls on the same date every year – Nov. 18.

This year it falls on the day after Hamlin could claim his first title.

“Homestead is always my birthday weekend,” Hamlin said. “I want to have two reasons to celebrate, not just one.”

Hamlin recalled the last time he came this close to a title.

“In 2010 I shut everyone out,” Hamlin said. “Like I didn’t do any of the birthday stuff.  I didn’t hang out with anyone.  I really didn’t respond to calls or texts or anything like that.  But I’m not going to be that way I don’t think this time around because I just am not going to change who I am.”

Should he win the championship by winning Sunday’s race, he’d earn his 38th Cup Series victory on his last day of being 38 years old.

Also, a win Sunday would be Hamlin’s seventh of the season. That would make him the winningest Daytona 500 winner in a season since Jeff Gordon had seven victories in 1999.

RACE WINNER = CHAMPION

This weekend marks the sixth edition of the Cup championship race under the elimination playoff format.

While the championship is simply awarded to the highest-finishing driver out of the Championship 4, each year the champion has won the race.

2014 – Kevin Harvick (led final eight laps)

2015 – Kyle Busch (led eight of final 10 laps)

2016 – Jimmie Johnson (only led final three laps as part of an overtime finish)

2017 – Martin Truex Jr. (led final 51 laps)

2018 – Joey Logano (led final 12 laps after passing Truex)

Should Busch win on Sunday, he would end a 21-race winless streak.

“It’s obviously a great opportunity to be able to go race for a championship, and that’s what this format is,” Busch said. “It doesn’t mean a whole lot to make it to the Championship 4 if you don’t win it. You know, it’s all reset to zero. There are four of us who go for winner-take-all at Homestead. … It’s what your whole season comes down to.”

ONE LAST MONSTER MASH

Sunday’s race will be the last that Monster Energy serves as the title sponsor for the Cup Series.

Starting in 2020, the Cup Series will movie to a tiered sponsor system with no title sponsor.

The Cup Series has had a title sponsor since 1971 when Winston entered the role it held until 2003.

Nextel owned the naming rights from 2004-07. Sprint then held the rights through 2016 with Monster taking over in 2017.

RUNNING OUT OF TIME

Three drivers who won races in 2018 have a last shot to earn their first victory of this season.

They include Austin Dillon (won the Daytona 500), Clint Bowyer (two wins in 2018) and Aric Almirola (one win).

This will also be Jimmie Johnson’s last opportunity to keep from going winless in two straight seasons. He is winless in the last 94 races (June 2017 at Dover).

UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN

Sunday will mark the final full-time Cup starts for Paul Menard and David Ragan.

Both have said they plan to continue racing but suggest it could be in other forms beyond Cup.

Menard, the 2011 Brickyard 400 winner, will make his 471st Cup start Sunday. While he did not have as much success as others, he’ll be remembered for his quiet demeanor, abstinence from social media and devoted fan base.

Ragan, who won at Daytona in 2011 and Talladega in 2013, will make his 470th Cup start Sunday.

Both began running full-time in 2007 in a rookie class that included Juan Pablo Montoya and AJ Allmendinger. Montoya won rookie of the year honors.

Front Row Motorsports

Ragan said he’s looked at schedules for ARCA and some Late Model races across the country. He also said there are plans for him to drive the Next Gen car next year in some testing.

“Ford Motor Company has been a really good partner of mine and a supporter of my career since day one, and so I’m working with those guys on how I can help the big picture from Ford Performance and how we can work on next year and the Next Generation car as it rolls out,” Ragan said.

Ragan will be driving a throwback paint scheme on his No. 38 Ford. It will look like the car Ragan won with at Talladega with Front Row Motorsports.

MOVING ON 

This weekend will be the last for a handful of drivers in their current rides before they transition to a new team, while others are still without announced plans for beyond Sunday.

Leavine Family Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto will replace Menard in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford.

Xfinity Series driver Christopher Bell will succeed DiBenedetto in LFR’s No. 95 Toyota.

Rookie Daniel Hemric is being replaced by Richard Childress Racing in its No. 8 Chevrolet with Tyler Reddick next season. Hemric will drive for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series in 21 race in its No. 8 car.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Daniel Suarez has not announced his plans for next season. The 2016 Xfinity champion will end his third Cup season on Sunday.

JTG Daugherty Racing and Roush Fenway Racing will be swapping drivers after the Miami race. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. go from driving Roush’s No. 17 Ford to JTG Daugherty to replace Chris Buescher. Meanwhile, Buescher will return to Roush after five years away to drive the No. 17.

Rookie Matt Tifft will not be back in Front Row Motorsports’ No. 36 Ford. He can’t commit to racing next year after he suffered a seizure last month. He’s missed the last two races while John Hunter Nemechek has competed in his place. Nemechek will be in the car this weekend.

NEW TIRE

All three national series will compete on a new tire set-up compared to what was used at this track last year.

This is the same combination of left and right-side tires each series ran at Chicagoland and those in the Cup and Xfinity Series ran at Darlington this season.

This left and right-side tire features construction updates to align with what is run at other speedways, while this right-side tire takes teams from a multi-zone tread tire to a single zone tire and will increase grip.

“The compounds we will be running provide plenty of grip, but also offer the endurance needed on Homestead’s track surface,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, in a press release.  “These high wear tracks put on some of our best races, and the past several years at Homestead have proven that.  Tire fall-off creates more ‘comers’ and ‘goers’ over the course of a long run, which means more passing and tire management being an important element of the race.”

TWO OTHER CHAMPIONSHIPS AT STAKE

The Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series also will crown their champions this weekend.

The Truck Series will race Friday night. Defending champion Brett Moffitt, two-time champion Matt Crafton, Ross Chastain and Stewart Friesen will compete for the title.

The Xfinity Series will race Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Cole CusterChristopher BellTyler Reddick and Justin Allgaier will compete for the crown. Reddick won this race last year to claim the championship

This will be the final full-time Xfinity starts for Bell and Reddick before the jump to the Cup Series next year.